A homebrewer in a homebrew shop is like a kid in a candy store. In addition to all the different types of malt, hops and yeast, homebrew shops offer a multitude of items that make brewing easier, cleaner and more fun.
However, useful homebrewing items can also be found almost anywhere if you just look. Hardware stores, home improvement stores and cooking specialty stores all carry useful or adaptable items. Even stores that are a little off the beaten path — like an aquarium store — may have something to aid you in your homebrewing.
Here is a collection of everyday items that are useful in brewing, but aren’t usually found in homebrew shops. Some are easy to find; others a little harder. Some are relatively big ticket items, while others are cheap — or free! All will help you toward the end of brewing the highest quality beer possible, the goal that drives us all.
Igloo “Ice Cube”
This handy cooler has a space saving design, which also makes it well suited for use in the home brewery. Its an economical first mash tun/sparger for those new to all grain brewing. Coolers like this are a great tool to help develop the fundamental skills of mashing because they eliminate a lot of the temperature flux that occurs with a non insulated vessel during the mash. Its also the perfect size and shape to accommodate one carboy, for an evaporative cooling “swamp cooler” setup. With a t-shirt or a towel and a little water, it provides an effective method of keeping your wort cooler than the surrounding air, without the need for electricity.
Wrenches, appropriately sized, for instance 13/16” for a pin lock fitting, or sockets for ball locks, enable the removal of the fittings from Corny kegs for cleaning, without subjecting them to trauma that can damage the pins or strip the threads or hex construction of the fitting. There are sockets available that have detentes cut into them so that they pass over the pins to grip the bottom of the fitting, but a decent quality crescent wrench will accomplish the same thing. It can be worked in under the pins to grip the fitting or from the top at an angle, depending on the available access around the top of the keg.
Hand Sanitizer (Like Purell)
This is a very handy thing to have in the brewery, because it helps to prevent undoing all of the hard work that is put into sanitizing spoons, racking canes, siphon and transfer equipment, etceteras. Use it whenever you touch anything that has been sanitized, that will contact the wort. There are a great many things that are handled in the course of the brew day that could easily contaminate even the cleanest hands. You can’t wash them every time you touch the outside of the carboy or a towel, but it takes only seconds to use a product like this and its well worth the effort.
Water Filtration Device
Good beer starts with good water. The quality of municipal water varies based on the method of treatment and may contain any number of naturally occurring or added components that can effect taste, mash efficiencies, or yeast health. The simplest system consists of filter housings and cartridges available at any home improvement or hardware store. An effective, low cost setup would include a fiber, sediment filter and a carbon filter connected in series (one after the other), to remove particulate and chemical residues. The top shelf option would be an RO or reverse osmosis treatment device. These work by forcing the water through a membrane with holes that are a fraction of a micron in size, approaching the size of the water molecule itself. The membrane allows the water to pass through, while trapping the dissolved minerals and biological matter (bacteria, viruses.) Minerals that are not detrimental to human health like sodium and potassium will also pass through the membrane.
Chloramines are a combination of ammonia and chlorine and are among the compounds approved by the FDA for use in the treatment of municipal water supplies. Although “safe” for human consumption, they are an anti-microbial and like chlorine can impact yeast health. They can also contribute off flavors, and cause degradation of rubbers and other materials found in brewery equipment. Both carbon and RO filtration remove chloramines, and to assess the effectiveness of your filtration system, a tester of some sort is a useful tool. Since Koi are particularly susceptible to chloramines, some pet shops carry test strips that will give you a quantitative measure of it. A TDS or Total Dissolved Solids tester will measure all of the various dissolved solids. These are handheld units, similar in appearance to a pH tester, that when dipped in a water sample, measure the amount of dissolved solids in the sample. Either one will give you a good read on how effective your filtration is.
On Food & Cooking, a book by Harold McGee
This widely acclaimed volume is a comprehensive work that celebrates all things food and food science. It describes in easy to understand language, foods, ingredients, and the chemical and physical properties and reactions in them that make them behave and taste the way they do. Understanding your ingredients is essential for getting the best expression from them that you possibly can. This book covers the culture, history, and lore of all kinds of foods, including fermented beverages. Also food processing, additives, and how our bodies process what we eat. Besides being a really cool and entertaining reference on the subject of the foods we eat, it arms the brewer with useful information on the non-Reinheitsgebot ingredients commonly used in brewing, colloquially called “adjuncts.”
Your Municipality’s Water Quality Report
This is among the most valuable references for any brewer. This report, by statute, is produced annually, and if you pay a water bill, it should be mailed to you with equal frequency. If not, you need only call or visit your local water department and request it. It tells you where your tap water comes from, what’s in it, and how it’s analysis compares to state and federal limits for microbiological, radioactive, inorganic, and volatile contaminants. [best things in life are free]